U.S., Zowie! $80 Billion For Amtrak: Don’t Get Too Excited Too Soon

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 2, 2021

So many people and state departments of transportation are collectively tingling with excitement over the Amtrak Connects US plan unveiled this week as part of the larger infrastructure program from The White House.

The astronomical figure of $80 billion has been mentioned as the cost of Amtrak’s wish list.

For those who are beside themselves with excitement, please remember this is a wish list, not a done deal. It’s similar to browsing through a Christmas catalog looking at all of the possibilities of the season.

For those who missed civics class back in their school days, there is a process in place how these things are accomplished.

• The Biden White House requested input from Amtrak and other federal agencies on what they felt was a “once in a generation opportunity” to bring everything up-to-date and create new results.

• Amtrak complied and submitted a wish list, notable for the absence of any new major long distance/inter-regional train services, but lots of Amtrak President Stephen Gardner’s new shorter-distance corridors. For many of these new corridors and new hubs there is still a lack of “you can’t get there from here” problem solving. The proposed maps pretty much say if you are traveling longer distances, take an airplane.

• The White House included Amtrak’s wish list and assigned a price tag of $80 billion as part of a multiple-trillion dollar package.

• One of two things can happen at this point. The usual protocol is for leaders of the president’s party in Congress to introduce his bill – once its is reduced to actual legislative language – “by request” and so marked in the heading of the bill. “By request” explicitly carries no endorsement by the introducing member, who is most often the authorizing committee chairman. Or, Congress can create its own bill, based on what The White House has requested – or what Congress feels is a better way to go than what The White House proposed.

• Whichever way the bill is introduced it must go through the normal committee process. This is where the serious “slicing and dicing” is accomplished; various members will always have their own ideas of how such a bill should be in final form with their own changes, updates and upgrades and downgrades. It’s not unusual for the beginning bill to be greatly different than the final product.

• When/if the final bill is passed by the full Congress it is only a bill authorizing spending on specific items. In essence, the final bill becomes a “begging license” for the beneficiaries (Amtrak) to go to the congressional budget committees and ask to be included in a final budget.

• In some instances recently, such as COVID-19 relief bills we have seen part of this process side-stepped and streamlined. That most likely won’t occur in this instance.

• Amtrak will finally see money after the original authorization process is completed with any changes Congress may wish to make. Then, the through the budget process Congress may also choose to fund some parts of the authorization or all of it. Nothing is guaranteed. In the typical horse-trading process very little is sacred.

• Remember that no current Congress may pass legislation which cannot be undone by future Congresses. Essentially, while many things may be in place, every year is a new year and new opportunities to accept what has been accomplished in the past or simply start fresh with new ideas and new goals.

The bottom line: $80 billion is a nice wish list with a nice, round number. You may wish to slip a note to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny to alert them to the wishes. The end result is often the same.

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